How To Save When Food Costs Go Up

Over the summer, food and household supply prices are expected to rise as much as 15%. According to the average American household budget from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the combined expense of food, household operations, and housekeeping supplies was $10,505 in 2019. A 15% jump in that number means the average American household is going to get dinged approximately $1,600 a year, or $130 a month, just buying the same food and household supplies they bought before.

Why is this happening? For the most part, it’s an aftereffect of the pandemic. For the last year, demand for a lot of supplies was relatively low, so prices stayed even and a lot of companies trimmed their supply chains. As the world returns to normal, demand is returning to normal and we’re playing catch up.

How should individual households handle this? As always, the best tool in our financial toolbelt for handling short-term financial change is frugality. In this case, since the price increases are happening with food and household supply prices, targeting frugality to those areas is the most effective tool we have.

In this article

    Strategies for handling a big jump in food and household prices

    Cook at home as much as you can

    According to Forbes, eating at home saves about 80% over eating out. This matches up with our own experience. Taking my family of five to a local Mexican restaurant costs about $75 (as it literally did just last week!), but using prices from our local grocery store, we could prepare a pretty similar meal at home for about $20.

    Many of us became far more familiar with our home kitchens during the pandemic, and those skills should remain in place even as things return to something like the pre-pandemic normal. Keep your own kitchen as the source of most of your meals. If your life is getting busier again, start adding lots of cheap and simple meals to your repertoire, and use smart strategies for cooking at home even on busy weeknights.

    Our family’s favorite techniques for cooking at home when things are busier involve preparing lots of meals in the slow cooker, making a lot of meals in advance and freezing them on the weekends, and doing a lot of food prep steps on the weekend or easier weeknights (things like cooking rice or boiling beans).

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    Focus on staples

    When you hit the grocery store, buy fewer prepared foods and more staples. For example at my local grocer, rather than buying Green Giant Simply Steam Seasoned Tuscan seasoned broccoli for $2.49 for 9 ounces of frozen broccoli, I can buy a 16-ounce unseasoned bag of frozen broccoli (almost twice as much) for $2.48 and use a few dashes of salt and Italian seasoning on them (costing just a few pennies) before I serve it.

    Staples like dry rice, dry beans, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, whole chicken, and so on are far less expensive per ounce or per pound than processed and pre-cooked stuff. Most of these items are extremely easy to cook in a slow cooker or the microwave with minimal effort (dump them in a bowl or crock, turn the microwave or slow cooker on for a certain amount of time, add a bit of salt and dash in some seasonings, walk away) and save a lot of money.

    Try lots of store brands

    Store brand food and household products save an average of 25% over functionally equivalent name brand items, according to Consumer Reports. The strategy here is simple: Buy everything you can in store brand form, and only switch to a name brand version if there’s a specific and clear reason to do so, not just because you think the name brand might be better.

    Empty that pantry

    There’s no better time than now, particularly after a year-plus of making a lot of meals at home and tossing partially used items in the cupboards and refrigerator and freezer. Dig through what you have on hand and make sure that you’re using it before it expires.

    One great trick is to take items that are starting to approach their expiration date from your fridge and pantry and use them as the center of a meal plan for the week. Come up with meals that use those items along with items that are on sale in the grocery store flyer to create some extremely cheap meals for the coming week.

    Another great tactic is to simply “reverse rotate” your cupboards and freezer every once in a while. Pull everything from the back that’s not easily in sight and move it to the front in your cupboards, fridge and freezer, so that you’re compelled to use that older stuff.

    Use reusable household supplies

    Rather than simply buying and re-buying household supplies, move to as many reusable options as possible.

    For example, rather than buying endless paper towels, buy a bunch of absorbent cloth and get into a routine of just washing them. Pick up some microfiber cloths, which you can run through the laundry with other clothes, and some sponges, which can be run through the dishwasher.

    Another option is to skip buying most household cleaners and hang onto a few spray bottles where you can mix up your own household cleaners. If you mix 1 part vinegar to 8 parts water in a spray bottle and add one or two drops of dish soap, you have a great multipurpose spray cleaner for pennies that works really well with the reusable cloth.

    If you’re willing to be more adventurous, consider options like cloth diapering (which saves substantial money if you have multiple children) or a bidet (replaces toilet paper).

    Aim to minimize the things you have to rebuy. The more things you do in that direction, the less affected you are by prices going up on household supplies.

    Don’t drop the momentum

    These strategies provide powerful short-term solutions to increases in prices. To make these effective in the long term, take the savings and do something wise with them. Pay off high interest debts, build an emergency fund, and invest for the future. Those are the tools to translate smart frugality into lasting wealth. That way, you’re in a better place no matter where the economy goes.

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    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.